Girl in Red is back, baby!


Girl in Red’s new album is downright cheerful, and if that doesn’t sound quite on brand, you’re not paying attention. As the title track, “Doing It Again Baby,” unravels from an upbeat, synthy groove into a banjo-forward breakdown, those less in the know might ask: What happened to the homemade bedroom pop that launched Girl in Red (a.k.a. Marie Ulven) from indie stardom to opener for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour?

True, the 25-year-old’s early days as an artist in her native Norway were marked by the wistful singles that have since amassed hundreds of millions of Spotify streams (and also by a relatively successful fingerboarding career). Dreamy tunes like 2018’s “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend” still haunt the playlists of the young and pining: “I don’t want to be your friend/ I want to kiss your lips,” Ulven sings, her muffled voice emoting all the tortured artistry of a teenager in love.

But in the six years since, Ulven has grown up — as a songwriter, as a producer and as a human.

“It’s like I need to update my profile picture, but I need to do it with my entire discography,” she says over Zoom with a slight SoCal surfer inflection. It’s early April, and Ulven is in Nashville rehearsing for an arena tour that’ll take her across the country before summer and throughout Europe in the fall. She continues talking between bites of room service pancakes. “I feel like this new album is the thing that’s going to set that,” she says. “So that when people think of Girl in Red, they don’t think of a demo I posted in 2016.”

Released last week, “I’m Doing It Again Baby!” is a maximalist sophomore album that, while delivering 27 minutes of polished pop, veers into strange and satisfying new territories for Ulven: Her voice stretches like bubble gum over danceable tracks with hints of Rodrigo-esque punk. She’s joined on one by fellow Eras alum Sabrina Carpenter. In short, it’s a lot of fun.

That’s not to say there aren’t songs like 2018’s gentle yet discomforting “Summer Depression” — songs that deal head-on with Ulven’s struggles with mental health. On “Ugly Side,” there’s a particularly vulnerable spoken-word example: “The people I love the most are the ones who get the worst of me/ And I don’t like that.”

So despite a swing between genres, for Ulven it’s the right next step. That’s in no small part because of her growth as a producer; she’s now worked with such big-name producers as Finneas (Billie Eilish’s brother) and, most recently, Norwegian composer Matias Tellez.

“I hear things differently now,” Ulven says. “It’s a natural progression for me, sonically, because I’m just better at what I do.”

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Ulven has kept busy despite the three-year gap between albums. For one, she’s been hitting the festival circuit hard. For another, she was scooped up by reigning pop queen Swift for her record-breaking Eras Tour last summer. Although she had conflicting headlining shows, she couldn’t say no. By June, she had jetted off to Chicago to embark on a string of Northwestern shows.

“If [Swift] comes knocking, you do whatever she f—ing says,” Ulven says, half joking.

As Ulven herself notes, we live in a time when the biggest names in pop belong to women. And although she is eager to join those ranks, she’s hesitant to be put in a box with queer contemporaries. It’s true that explicitly gay female artists are having a moment in pop: Look no further than Reneé Rapp or Chappell Roan. But there was a time not long ago when the internet memed the phrase “Do you like Girl in Red?” meaning, “Are you gay?” For Ulven, it got tiresome.

“I would constantly get messages from people being like, ‘I’m not gay, but I really like [your 2018 single] “We Fell in Love in October,”’” she says. “I was like, ‘Why are you saying that? That’s so weird.’”

Instead, her sexuality has been a background to her art only insomuch as her love songs are about women — such as the new album’s delicate “A Night to Remember,” a hopeful, drum-driven bop about meeting her girlfriend at a bar.

But Ulven’s favorite song on the record, she says as she clutches a vinyl copy to her chest, is the opener, “I’m Back,” which explains her absence from music (“I was gone for a minute ’cause I went to get help”). It’s just gentle enough to ease listeners in to the rest of the track list’s high-energy bangers, a sort of introductory lullaby to an album that has an explicitly eager name. Ulven says she cries when she listens to it and cries when she plays it. “It feels like the song that most correctly and truly reflects my reality,” she says.

“I’m Back” is also cheery, certainly, but in a way that feels earned. “Sometimes I get bit by the dark/ It spreads into my heart, takes over me,” Ulven sings, then answers her own doubts: “I believe I will laugh/ I believe it will pass/ I believe there’s hope for me.”

April 20 and 21 at 8 p.m. at the Anthem, 901 Wharf St. SW. Saturday sold out; Sunday tickets $45-$95.


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